The next morning, Grandpa was leaning out the passenger side window of our 1972 quad-cab Ford when I walked down the porch steps to put Anna in the truck. It was the only way to make sure she left for town clean and dressed. Turning her loose between the bathtub and the car was a mistake I’d learned from.
“Good morning, May,” Grandpa greeted me with my grandmother’s name. He’d done that before and I could never tell if he was confusing me with Grandma or just saying I reminded him of Grandma.
“Good morning, Grandpa,” I said, handing Anna to him through the window.
“I read in the paper how you won that Miss America contest,” Grandpa continued, smiling at me. “I knew you would.”
“I didn’t win any Miss America contest,” I laughed as the boys came up just in time to hear Grandpa’s congratulations.
“She took first place!” Will exclaimed, winking at me.
“You’re always so modest, May,” Grandpa said, shaking his head and smiling. Then suddenly he frowned at me disapprovingly and I felt a shiver of fear go through me.
“Only you weren’t very modest in that bathing suit they had you in. What were you thinking, May?”
“Grandpa!” I cried. “It’s me, Ramona. Grandma died, remember? I’m Ramona.”
“Good morning, Ramona,” Grandpa said, “how is Josephine today?” I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. Was Grandpa losing it or was I?
“She’s fine, Grandpa.”
“Everybody ready? Let’s go!” Dad announced as he and Mom slid onto the wide front seat from the driver’s side. Susanna had climbed in the back. We waved goodbye and then they were gone.
“That was weird,” Jake commented, staring after the truck.
“He was seeing the past,” I said.
“Or the future,” Will elbowed me playfully in the ribs. I could tell he was trying to cheer me up and I was grateful for the distraction. “Grandma never won a Miss America contest. But you just might.”
“Will!” I cried and tackled him.
Tackling Will is a futile effort. At least for me. In two seconds, I found myself slung over his shoulder like a bag of feed as he strode toward the barn. Daniel and Jake were laughing way harder than they should have been.
Will put me down in front of the barn, just as I was starting to get mad.
“Hey, Mona,” he said, as though we had walked there together peacefully, “Why don’t you go pack us a lunch to take along. Us boys can get the horses ready but you’ll do a better job of getting us some grub together. What do you say?”
For a moment, I couldn’t decide whether to be mad and ruin the day or to be fine and go get the lunch. But I really wanted this to be a good day and I could see his point; I was the most capable of getting a lunch together. I headed back toward the house.
I went down into the cellar and got four bottles of ginger-osha beer8 and a jar of green chile. An idea for lunch was forming in my head. I love putting together good food and coming up with a new meal.
There were leftover beans in the well house where we keep our cold stuff. There was also a container of shredded beef we had used for sandwiches. I put the beans in a pot on the wood stove and added the shredded beef and the jar of green chile. Onion and spices went in next. I stirred and tasted until it was just warm enough to give me an idea about what it was going to taste like. It was good. I put a lid on the pot and taped it down with some duct tape for the journey.
I went to Will’s room and got his backpack and put it on the kitchen table. Into it went the following items:
- A pot of beans and meat
- Leftover tortillas wrapped in paper
- A half round of plain hard cheese
- Four ginger-osha beers
- Giant ginger cookies9
- Four metal bowls and four spoons
- A canteen of water
I slung the backpack over my shoulder and then put it down again to go look for some plastic bags. I might gather some herbs while we were up there and I would need some way to bring them back. These were added to the pack and then I headed back to the barn.
Josephine and Squirt were in a large stall in the barn and Jo looked so much better that I was not worried about leaving her. Her udder was huge though and I realized we were going to need to start milking her soon. This was the third day . . . the calf would have gotten most of the colostrum by tonight. Tomorrow we should start milking.
I turned around as the boys came into the barn from the open end. They were each leading a horse. Daniel looked proud and a little nervous.
“That was fast,” Will commented. “What did you pack?”
Jake snorted and laughed so explosively that Caramel, my horse, tossed her head and startled Daniel. He jumped away in alarm and she jumped the opposite direction, rearing up on her hind legs. She was frightened by Daniel’s sudden movements. Instantly, Will took command and stretched out a hand to catch Caramel’s lead, while still holding his horse, Roy.
“Easy, easy now . . . Caramel.” He said in a soothing but firm voice. “It’s okay, girl. Easy Daniel. Just move slow and steady. No sudden surprises. You scared her more than she scared you.”
“Sorry,” Daniel said a little stiffly, not reaching out to take Caramel’s lead again. I put the pack on the floor and took the lead from Will.
“It’s okay,” I said, without looking at Daniel. What if he decided he never wanted to ride a horse?
“She doesn’t understand your words, so she listens to the sound of your voice and feels your movements. She thought you were telling her something was dangerous or wrong, so she was scared.”
Daniel stepped over near me and put out a hand toward Caramel slowly.
“It’s okay, Caramel,” he said in a soft voice. “Sorry I scared you. It’s okay. I’ll try to be cool.”
“Good,” I nodded. “Very good. Now let your hand touch her neck and then run it down to her withers and rub her there for a minute. No, with the hair, not against it. Good. Awesome. See, she’s totally chilled-out now.”
Caramel turned her head to sniff Daniel’s hair and then she turned back to me, as if to say, “Okay, what’s next?”
Daniel looked at me inquiringly too, so I said, “She likes you. You’re going to be good with horses.”
He grinned and his expression said, Thanks, but you’re full of crap. Suddenly, I was the one embarrassed.
It struck me for the first time, that Daniel was pretty good at reading people. He may not know much about horses, but he’d grown up around a lot of people and could tell when someone was being straight up or not.
While I saddled Caramel, I thought about the idea of being genuine and that thing people call coy or fake.
Sometimes I don’t know about myself—who I really am, or who I want to be—so I try on new affects just like I try on clothes. I feel like I’m looking for myself in a department store full of potential versions of me, like mannequins that look like me but are all dressed differently. I’m looking for my style. But maybe there is a me that is a plain and simple just me. If so, who—what—is she?
Right then, the memory of sitting in a pasture (or in manure) with a newborn calf in my lap came to my mind. Then like flashes of lightening in my brain, other moments came faster and faster: dancing with Will, making cheese with Mom, walking back from the barn with Dad while telling him about an elk I’d seen grazing with the cows, sitting on Grandpa’s porch with him and listening to his stories, making our picnic for today . . . What did those moments have in common?
Then I saw it clearly.
The times when I’m most me are the times when I’m not thinking about me, I thought and laughed aloud at the irony of it.
“Penny,” Will said, leading his horse out of the barn to stand next to me.
“It was worth a lot more than that,” I replied, smiling at my brother, at peace for the first time that day.
Jake came out of the barn with Daniel already mounted behind him. Daniel looked a little tense but determined.
“How about going to the ghost town?” Jake suggested as we left the small pasture and stood looking down on the lake. It was a good idea. There is a spring and waterfall where we picnic sometimes and it is beautiful ride.
“A ghost town! For real?” Daniel exclaimed, looking at Will for verification.
“It’s not like it sounds,” Will laughed, turning Roy toward the path through Grandpa’s valley. Caramel stepped in behind him, and Ranger followed us. “It was a real town—of sorts—back before they put in the railroad. People used to live where there was water, so there are little settlements here and there wherever there are springs. When the wells were dug and the railroad built, people moved into town. All that’s left now are decaying log cabins and stacked rock chimneys.”
“It still sounds cool. I’d like to go there,” Daniel said.
“Yeah,” Will agreed, “it’s a good ride, pretty area. That’s where we’re headed.”
Our path took us by a small field we had planted with corn. There were high fences around it, because otherwise the elk would be in there eating the corn without a sideways glance at us.
“Check it out!” Jake exclaimed. “Two days ago, there were just a few tiny shoots sticking up. Now they’re all at least six inches tall! It was the rain. It’s amazing how fast they grow after a rain.”
“And full moon,” Will added.
“That must have been a lot of seeds,” Daniel commented, looking out over the five acre field.
“Yeah, but we saved dried corn from last year to plant. You can’t really buy non-GMO corn seed anymore—except from specialty suppliers.” Jake explained.
“What’s GMO?” Daniel asked.
“Genetically Modified Organisms,” I answered.
“We studied that in school,” Daniel said, “they make seeds better. Like, stronger and more resistant to disease and bugs.”
“Maybe,” said Will, “but did they tell you most of those GM seeds don’t reproduce?”
“So? You can just buy more. It’s worth it to have better corn.” I was amazed at Daniel’s confidence on the subject. You’d think he’d been farming all his life and had reasons for his opinions.
“Have you ever tasted non-GMO corn?” Jake asked. “It’s way better tasting than store-bought corn. It’s so sweet you can make ice cream with it!”
“Besides,” added Will, “it’s not just that the corn can’t reproduce itself. There were studies done in which hamsters were fed soy that had been genetically modified. The second generation had half as many babies as a group of hamsters that were fed non-GMO soy. Ask me about the third generation.”10
“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me anyway,” Daniel said, wryly.
“Most of the third generation couldn’t have babies,” Will continued, ignoring Daniel’s sarcasm. “Only one hamster in the whole lot had a few babies and over a fifth of those died. The living ones had weird side-effects like hair growing inside of their mouths and sterility.”
“Yeah!” Jake exclaimed, “And rats that were fed GMO soy had their balls turn blue!”
“Are you serious?” Daniel asked. “Why would they keep doing it if that was true?”
“I don’t know what their motives are. What are yours?” Will answered.
This time, Daniel had no immediate response. He stared out over the corn field for a minute.
“Does it do that stuff to humans?” he asked, quietly.
“No one knows yet,” Will replied. “Genetic engineering has only been in wide production for less than one human generation. But it does affect other animals that way—like cows. GMO-fed cows have begun giving birth to empty water bags and deformed babies. Which is another reason why we grow our corn.11
“And I can tell you one thing: I’m going to have kids. And my kids are gonna have kids. Heck, we might rule the world a few generations from now.”
Jake and I laughed, but Daniel stayed totally serious.
“What if you can’t find a girl that has the same ideas as you—a girl that hasn’t grown up eating GMO?”
“I know a couple,” Will said, with a sly smile over his shoulder. “I got my eye out. . .”
“Will!” Jake and I both cried at once. “Who? Who do you know?” But Will wouldn’t say another word.
We all rode in silence for a few minutes, thinking about what Will had said. I hadn’t thought about it before—that we will need spouses that have their eyes open and are preserving life instead of destroying it. Suddenly, my chances for a future as happy as Mom’s and Dad’s seemed much slimmer.
Jake and Daniel rode up beside me as we left the path and entered the open field. I looked over at them. Daniel looked right at me and stated emphatically, “I’m not going to eat any more GMO stuff.”
I couldn’t help laughing but the boys all started laughing too, so Daniel’s statement didn’t seem quite so embarrassing.
“Good,” I told him as seriously as I could manage. “It matters.”